Published Apr 25, 2016Like all good punks, NOFX enjoy subverting the norm. That was their modus operandi when the band formed in the mid-'80s (and purposefully or not, its members' M.O. before that) and, despite surprising longevity and financial success, it remains their M.O. today. So in tackling one of the great rock star indulgences — the memoir — Fat Mike, El Hefé, Smelly and Melvin fittingly flipped the script.
From Hammer of the Gods to The Dirt, rock autobiographies have celebrated (and, unfortunately, often tried to justify) indulgence and depravity, which The Hepatitis Bathtub certainly has in spades. The Los Angeles punk scene in which NOFX grew up was one filled with booze, drugs and violence; the scene attracted just as many people with its outsider status as it did its music. That the penchant for violence extended to police officers eager to beat on societal outcasts with little recourse didn't help matters. "Basically every five to ten minutes at any given punk show people were beating each other to a bloody pulp," writes Fat Mike at one point. That extended to sexual violence, and though band members didn't take part, they were certainly witnesses.
From this sordid melting pot sprang NOFX, a band who, by their own admission, were pretty shitty for the first half-decade of their career. Beginning life as more of a hardcore band, the group slowly evolved to the more melodic sound that they're associated with today. Told in chapters from the point-of-view of each band member (a la Mötley Crüe's The Dirt), the format gives each member — including former guitarists Dave Casillas and Steve Kidwiller — a chance to have their say. That band members apparently didn't discuss what they were going to write before submitting their chapters — many details are revealed to the group (and readers) for the first time here — adds a confessional layer to the book. Despite help from former Dead Kennedys vocalist Jeff Alulis, who also helped the band put together their Backstage Passport TV series, NOFX are not writers. Consequently, some chapters are a bit of a slog to get through.
The stories in The Hepatitis Bathtub run more or less chronologically with the period up to 1994's Punk in Drublic weighted heavily. Tales from dirty punk squats, parties and some dark tales from Smelly's junkie days, as well as background about band members' family lives, take precedence over the music, though Fat Mike emerges as the driving force behind the band's musical evolution. The remaining 20 years of the band's history get the last 100 pages of the 350-page tome, and most of that covers Mike's descent into drink and drug use, his interest in S&M and his experience mobilizing voters against George W. Bush in the 2004 U.S. Presidential election.
What sets NOFX's autobiography apart from so many others is the sense of inevitability to many of their early stories. In their early days, band members' lives were shaped by violence, poverty, discomfort and addiction. Their stories feel less celebratory (although its clear they certainly had some fun) and more of a mechanism for their protagonists to process the situations — sexual violence, mental illness — in which they were once immersed. It's difficult not to lay blame on various members for not recognizing suicidal tendencies, failing to intervene in a clear case of sexual assault or helping friends with serious drug problems (each member admits as much at some point in the book), but the picture painted here is of a group of young people just trying to survive the hellish situations in which they were living.
That might not carry water for some readers — and fair enough — but given the genre in which they're working, that the band confront their mistakes here is, in itself, revelatory. The Hepatitis Bathtub's "over-the-top tell-all" format is a compelling, often harrowing read, played straight-faced where their music has leaned on humour to transcend pain. (Da Capo Press)